From Near Death to Total Recovery: Yogi Bhava Ram Shares His Story of Self Healing
CAVANAUGH: Is this KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Life has a way of changing all of us. Our ambitions, our priority, sometimes even our deepest held beliefs change as we travel through the years. But few of us have experienced the profound transformation in lifestyle and goals as has my next guest. Once an award-winning NBC war correspondent, he is now a teacher and practitioner of yoga and ancient forms of Indian healing and purification. In the process, hard-nosed journalist Brad Willis became Bhava Ram. Welcome to the show. RAM: Thank you so much. It's nice to be here with you. CAVANAUGH: Now, looking at the pictures in the book of you reporting in war zones in the early 1990s, it's not just that you were a little younger and heavier, you look almost completely different. How would you describe your former self? RAM: Well, when I was a war correspondent, I think I was the classic alpha male, pushing forward, always wanting to get to the story, always wanting to be first. And that was a very different person. I ate a little more, so I was huskier and muscular so I could cross deserts and mountains and do whatever it took to do the job. CAVANAUGH: You were a winner of the Dupont award, which is a big deal in broadcast journalism. Do you remember being happy in this sort of dream job? RAM: I was nothing but happy. I mean, this was my whole identity. I felt like I was having a significant impact on the world, I was contributing to our knowledge of events around the globe, I was on-scene at the front lines of some of the most momentous events of our time, and I wouldn't have traded it for anything at the time. CAVANAUGH: And yet life intervened. [ LAUGHTER ] RAM: That's what happened! Life intervened. I broke my back, and a little tropical storm of all things on a vacation. I kept working for seven years because I was an alpha male, from the gulf war to Africa, and I just gritted my teeth and took more and more pain medications and drank like a good foreign correspondent and tried to hide it from everyone until finally the cracked vertebra in my back split wide open, and I fell to the ground in Manila howling like a feral cat and was brought back here to San Diego for a major back surgery. CAVANAUGH: And how did the surgery go? RAM: That back surgery failed. And I was declared disabled. I had lost not just a great career, my physical health, I had completely lost my identity at the time. And for me, that started a real downward trajectory into an abyss. CAVANAUGH: Now, on top of that disability, I have to ask you, you were able to walk at all? RAM: I could walk, but I walked with a cane. I trundled. And I had a body brace on. And I couldn't sit up to eat a meal. I had to lay on a recliner just about everywhere that I went. CAVANAUGH: On top of that disability, unbelievably, you were diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Did you just about give up? RAM: I came very close to giving up. I had spent several years in the body brace and in pain among medications and feeling terribly sorry for myself and having a lot of anger and fear and anxiety. Then I had a little boy born just before 1998, and I thought I might have an identity again. And as if to steal it away, three or four months later, I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer from exposure to depleted uranium in the gulf war and told I wouldn't live for two years. And I was given more medications and I drank heavier, it was like a monster was controlling my life and was just free falling. CAVANAUGH: You talk about your 50th birthday party. It's a grim memory for you. RAM: Well, as I was turning 50, friends from near and far gathered at my home in Coronado to celebrate. And I was in my body brace, laying down supine, pickled on medications and dying of cancer, and they gave me this wonderful roast. And it didn't occur to me until afterwards that they had all come to say goodbye. CAVANAUGH: And at that time, was that okay with you? RAM: I didn't have much of a will to live anymore at that time except for that little boy. But I had lost so much clarity, and I was so absorbed in my own drama and my own self-pity and my own life crisis that I really couldn't see anything clearly. CAVANAUGH: And then came a moment that your 2-year-old son, Morgan, said something to you that became a mantra and began turning things around for you. What was that? RAM: It was just before the year 2000. He crawled up on my lap, and by this point, he's my only touchstone. It's not easy for people to be around me at this point because I'm so absorbed in my self-pity. Except for him. And he finally saw daddy is different. He finally got it. And he looked at me and he said get up, daddy. And that touched me in a place that I really didn't know that I had. I decided at least I can get off all these drugs and all this alcohol, and one day someone will tell that little boy that I died with dignity, and that's what I set out to do. CAVANAUGH: How did you find yoga? RAM: Well, I went into a detox facility here at Scripps, and have several dark nights of the soul, I can report as a former journalist, they are real because they came and visited me a lot there. CAVANAUGH: And this was off the pain medication. BHAVA RAM: Yeah, cold Turkey, 14 years of morphine, Vicodin, Prozac, and more. And when I crawled out of that situation, they had just opened an experimental clinic, ancient eastern and modern western healing modalities. That's where I found mind/body medicine and realized I can take control of my life. I have some mastery here. And I know on some of the radio teases to my appearance here, I was called a yoga master. I don't see myself of that. I think each person is a master of their own destiny. That's what I've come to learn. I teach yoga and Ayurveda, are and I train teacher, but the only person I've ever had any mastery over is myself. CAVANAUGH: What kind of practice did you undertake? BHAVA RAM: Well, I was in the pain center, and I first had very therapeutic yoga. Very seen, the facility closed. I went home and took an office in my house and turned it into what I called my Himalayan cave. 10-12 hours a day. I did massive fasting. I became an organic vegan. I did a lot of affirmations and mantras, because your thoughts create the neurochemistry in your body. I faced and thanked my cancer and my broken back and my lost career. I learned to accept them with gratitude as catalysts for my personal growth. I did a lot of yoga postures, gentle at first, and then building strengths over the months and years. And two years later, I was 85pounds lighter, healed, and whole. CAVANAUGH: During that journey, because that is a rather profound journey from dealing with the best western medicine could offer and not getting much better, and then just diving whole-hog into a completely different lifestyle. Did you ever doubt yoga's healing power during those 12-hour marathon sessions? Did these thoughts pop into your mind? What the heck am I doing? BHAVA RAM: Well, this sounds funny because I was a very jaded and cynical journalist, and I was suspicious of everything. But from the moment I started with yoga I had an inner knowing. There was a voice inside of me that said this is it. And because this was life or death for me, I went with it 100%. And every time that it was a little difficult or I got very wracked in pain again or worried, I would just close my eyes and say get up, daddy. Get up, daddy. And I would find the strength to move forward. CAVANAUGH: One of the things that strikes me in your book is that you do have a disclaimer about the healing programs. They're not a formula for anyone else but yourself. I think that's one of the things that mystifies people who are not in eastern practice and yoga practice but are involved in western science-based medicine. Medicine they say, a vaccine, an antibiotic is supposed to work the same for everyone. So why doesn't yoga? RAM: Because each person is a unique individual. Different physiology, different age, different level of motivation. A whole host of factor, different body types. And if we go back to that scientific paradigm of a pharmaceutical medication is supposed to have the same impact on every person, how many people die every year from side effects? How many people's lives are destroyed, their health is destroyed? We all remember Thalidomide babies, a whole host of things from there on. So I think we need to seriously question that. And with the organic and holistic modality, we don't have those worries because these are in line with the principles of nature. It's the same thing as eating wholesome, organic food. You're going to do a lot better than eating junk food that's highly toxic and that has a lot of additives in it. CAVANAUGH: If it doesn't work for someone though, is it sort of blaming the person who isn't cured of their disease or doesn't have the kind of a turnaround that you experienced? RAM: That's a great question. I've been asked that before and here's what I like to say. Practicing yoga and Ayurvedic medicine on a daily basis with a great sense of self-discipline, which involves nutrition and psychology and lifestyle and exercise and meditation, will maximize your unique healing potential. And it also will soothe your soul along the way. And what will happen will be a much better outcome than if you stay drugged and depressed and noninvolved and you're not affecting any life mastery in your healing process. CAVANAUGH: I'm going to hit you with another one. I think what makes people sometimes roll their eyes is when western practitioners of yoga change their names. Why did you choose to call yourself Bhava Ram? RAM: There's a whole host of reasons for that. First I felt the person I had gone was gone. And it's not pretending I'm someone else, it's something to always look toward, to aspire to in my receive. My name means holding a great and positive emotion in your heart, and that's something that I have sought to do as I have continued in my healing journey. And I think I'll be healing for the rest of my life. It's a lifetime journey. And every time that name is used, and I think of myself as baba Ram, it reminds me, have a pure state of being in your heart, stay on your journey, stay humble, devoted, and committed. CAVANAUGH: You recently talked about your cancer remission on a UCSD conference on integrated medicine. Did you meet other people who had similar stories of remissions to yours? RAM: They had several other presenters there who had remarkable remissions. CAVANAUGH: Were there common threads? RAM: The common threads were they took power over their lives. It wasn't from an external source, a medication or a program. They took charge. And in that taking charge, they started to grow and change. They listened to their inner wisdom, and they became what we would call more holistic in their lifestyle, better food, more stress-reduction, more relaxation, more self-confidence, more faith. CAVANAUGH: What is deep yoga? RAM: Well, we take to teach -- my wife Laura Plum and I founded the deep yoga arts school in San Diego. The ancient Vedic texts are this incredible wisdom for how to be a human being. We like to withhold as true as we can do it, making it relevant for our modern western times. We like to go deep back into that source and bring it forth in a way that's palpable and understandable and recognizable and applicable for modern day Americans. CAVANAUGH: There was a controversy earlier this year about yoga classing taught in schools in Encinitas. Some parents objected because they thought that the practice had religious overtones. It sounds as if the practice does. RAM: True yoga is not a religion, it's a spiritual practice. You can be a Christian or a Jew or a Buddhist or a Baptist or a Jane or a Hindu, or Muslim, whatever and realm into this spiritual practice. You might say spirituality is the umbrella under which a host of religions might be categorized, and yoga embraces all. We don't want to change anyone, we don't want them to leave their religion or move to another belief form. We want them to believe in themselves and really find themselves and express their fullest potential and be the most authentic person that they can be. CAVANAUGH: Now, you will be launching your book Warrior Pose at an event at the Joan Crock center at USD this Sunday. What will you be sharing with attendees at the book launching? RAM: Well, doctor Miller, who I first heard at that pain center at Scripps in biofeedback sessions on microphone, he's subsequently become a colleague of mine. He will be there. And he's one of the pioneers of mind/body medicine. And I will share deeper elements of my life journey and store, but more importantly how it relates to you and everyone else. How we all have this capacity to go back to our birth right of inner power and manifestation of our fullest potential, and some of the ways that we might be able to do that along the way. CAVANAUGH: Quickly, you used to go for a 12-hour yoga sessions. How long do you practice these days? RAM: That's a good question. I do about an hour in the morning. CAVANAUGH: Okay. RAM: And then during the day, vitimes where I go into just a state of pure and deep relaxation and contemplation. CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that the launch of the book, Warrior Pose is taking place at the Joan Kroc Center for Peace and Justice on the University of San Diego campus this Saturday starting at 6:30. Thank you very much. RAM: Thank you very much for having me.
Warrior Pose Launch
Bhava Ram will speak and sign his book at the Joan Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice on the University of San Diego campus.
Sunday, May 5, 6:30 p.m.
Sometimes a person must hit rock bottom before deciding to make a drastic change.
For award-winning NBC war correspondent Brad Willis, rock bottom came when he was pronounced permanently disabled and then, shortly after, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
With his hopes for his old life crushed, he turned to something completely foreign to him. He embraced ancient forms of Indian healing and purification. He became a vegetarian and engaged in fasting, meditating and practicing yoga for 12 to 14 hours a day.
In San Diego, he created the practice of Deep Yoga and went on to write a book: "Warrior Pose: How Yoga (Literally) Saved My Life."
Now disability- and cancer-free, the once cynical Willis, who goes by his spiritual name Bhava Ram these days, has written the book to share his story.